Black Commissioners Not Reappointed by New Mayor
In Ypsilanti, the mayor has the sole power to nominate people to the city’s commissions. City commissions are government bodies made up of volunteers who make decisions that affect Ypsilanti. Some commissions merely advise City Council; others actually have the final decision-making power over city matters. Ypsilanti’s commissions cover a wide range of topics, from sustainability and parks and rec, to police oversight and development zoning. In one four-year term, a mayor could easily nominate upwards of 100 people to commission positions; the mayor’s power of nomination can heavily influence this side of the city’s government.
According to the Freedom of Information Act request What’s Left filed with the city, in approximately 8 months in office, Mayor Bashert appears to be nominating about 80% of white applicants who have applied for commissions positions, while only nominating about 40% of PoC applicants who have applied for commission positions. Furthermore, Mayor Bashert appears to have failed to nominate a single PoC Ypsilanti resident to a commission position that they did not already have, and has failed to renominate at least two Black commissioners to their positions.
Toi Dennis is one of the Black commissioners who Bashert did not renominate, she served on the Ypsilanti Planning Commission from May ‘16 to May ‘19 and has been in email communication with What’s Left about her lack of reappointment. Ex-Commissioner Dennis stated she “was appointed by [former Mayor Amanda Edmonds] in May 2016 [and] was told they were looking for more diversity on the commission;” however, she stated it seemed that “under this new administration diversity is only valuable if you go along with staff recommendations.”
Dennis revealed that she was only notified of her lack of reappointment via an email from City Planner Bonnie Wessler that was sent ten minutes before the start of a Planning Commission meeting. Dennis did not see this email before attending that meeting, and only discovered something was awry when she noticed her name was not included on the Commission roll call. After that meeting Dennis spoke with Wessler and learned about her lack of reappointment.
Ex-Commissioner Dennis showed What’s Left the email Wessler sent her ten minutes before the May meeting—in it, Wessler claims she “completely lost track of people’s terms this year… but [that Dennis’] term appears to have concluded for now.” However, Dennis told What’s Left that after that meeting Wessler shared that it was Wessler herself who recommended Dennis not be renominated. Further, in the same email to Dennis, Wessler admits that three other Planning Commissioners had their terms expire at the same time as Dennis, and all three had their positions reinstated.
Ex-Commissioner Dennis stated that she does not believe Wessler’s reasoning for her lack of renomination. She told What’s Left that “I believe the reason my seat was not renewed is because I spoke out and voted against the staff’s recommendations and I asked the citizens too many questions about what they wanted to see or not see when they came to speak against a proposal. Some of the recent things that I went against staff recommendations are putting shooting ranges on the South side, I voted against a halfway house in the Bell Kramer neighborhood and for a Hare Krishna house in Ward 2. I also went in the hall to ask some residents a question that the chair refused to allow me to ask.” Dennis states she did not expect the abrupt end to her term, that “[a]fter serving for 4 years, if there was a problem with my service I would have at least expected a meeting or conversation with the mayor and staff.”
Mayor Bashert nominated less than 40% of PoC applicants to boards and commissions, while nominating over 80% of white applicants.
Ex-Commissioner Dennis is at least the second Black Ypsi Commissioner that has not been reinstated since Mayor Bashert was sworn in last November, following former Human Relations Commission chair Sam Jones-Darling. While Human Relations Commissioners typically serve three-year terms, and former chair Jones-Darling will be leaving Ypsilanti in September, the Human Relations Commission unanimously stated on March 13 that they are “hindered by [lack] of commissioners.” This statement was part of a resolution in which the Human Relations Commission unanimously recommended that Mayor Bashert nominate a certain applicant to the commission; the commission stated that nominations would be necessary so they could “ensure regular quorum” (in other words, to ensure that they had enough commissioners to hold meetings). Bashert did not nominate the commission’s recommended applicant, a woman of color; she did nominate Jones-Darling but rescinded her nomination (or, refused to let Council vote to approve him) two weeks later.
What’s Left filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on 7/14/19, asking for all applications to Ypsilanti boards and commissions since September 2018.
Along with failing to reappoint these two Black Ypsi residents to their positions, Mayor Bashert appears not to have nominated a single PoC from within Ypsilanti to a new position on a board or commission as of the date of our request. Bashert had at least three opportunities to do so. In the same time period, of what appears to be 15 applications to new positions from white residents of Ypsi, Mayor Bashert nominated 10. Mayor Bashert seems to have nominated only one PoC from Ypsilanti to a board or commission seat at all: a reappointment to the Planning Commission.
While we cannot be certain of the racial self-identification of applicants because these are not self-reported in the applications, by our estimation* Mayor Bashert nominated less than 40% of PoC applicants to boards and commissions, while nominating over 80% of white applicants. This record has affected the racial makeup of some boards and commissions. The Human Relations Commission, for example, has seen white membership increase from 14% to 43% under Mayor Bashert, who denied nomination to at least two residents of color.
In a separate related issue, as a Councilmember, Bashert voted for her son-in-law to be a member of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority Board on September 11, 2018. Then-Councilmember Bashert noted that City Attorney John Barr “informed her it is not a conflict of interest” for her to vote toward approving her son-in-law. Indeed, although the city’s Ethics Ordinance prohibits city officers from making decisions for the gain of their immediate family, children-in-law are not included in the definition of ‘immediate family’ (though siblings-in-law are). Before the vote took place, late Councilmember Murdock stated he thought “it would be better if [Bashert] abstained” on that vote. The AAATA board is comprised of 10 seats, of which a single seat is available to an Ypsilanti representative—now Bashert’s son-in-law who was appointed and will serve a 5-year term.
Pete Buttigieg, another midwestern white mayor, has recently drawn criticism for a similar pattern: the South Bend Tribune reports that “during much of [South Bend Mayor Pete] Buttigieg’s time in office, many city boards have not had an African-American of Hispanic appointed by him. Statistics on such forms of decline and underrepresentation were omitted by the mayor’s 2016 report on diversity and inclusion.” This contributed to the viewpoint of one South Bend Tribune writer that the Pete Buttigieg administration “has been a force for inequality” in South Bend.
The FOIA also revealed that between September ‘18 and July ‘19 an estimated 74% of applicants to Ypsi boards and commissions were white residents, while as of 2018 only 60% of Ypsi’s population is white, according to the U.S. Census. This raises larger questions of representation and participation in Ypsi city government and whether or not all eligible residents are adequately informed about applying or encouraged to apply for positions on city boards and commissions. In a different example of the issue of representation, the Ypsilanti Planning Commission’s housing subcommittee distributed a housing survey in the winter of 2018 in which white residents were over-represented in the pool of responses.
You can learn more about Ypsilanti’s boards and commissions on the city’s website: go to cityofypsilanti.com, then click ‘Government’ up top, and then ‘Boards and Commissions’. Once you’re there, you can apply to be on a board or commission through a link toward the right of the screen.
What’s Left reached out to Mayor Bashert about the claims in this article. We have not received a response. Any responses we receive will be posted here.
*Racial identifications were made by personal testimony, Facebook data, or both.